Tuesday, 22 February 2011

TWIHARD Part II - Into the Night



As a companion piece to The Black Dog Podcast Twihard marathon (episodes #62 to #64), I too took up the challenge to watch all three Twilight movies. In Twihard Part I, we examined the brouhaha surrounding this franchise, explored the roots of vampires in fiction and demolished a major stumbling block surrounding the saga of Bella and Edward. So then, without further ado, on the movies themselves...

Twilight (2008)

Now on the face of it this movie was always going to be a win-win situation for Paramount Pictures. On one hand, they’d taken their time – around three years allegedly – developing the script, and had secured respected Catherine Hardwicke for the director’s chair. Though she had arguably fumbled the ball with The Nativity Story in 2006, a project that seemed to reek of cashing in on the surprise box office success of The Passion of the Christ, her first two films are solid gold. Thirteen (2003) and Lords of Dogtown (2005) were both beautifully shot and emotional rich films that told compelling stories about their teenage protagonists, and therefore a director who could capture the essence of adolescence so adeptly, conveying the internal turmoil of growing up as well as detailing the subcultures of the teenage wasteland, was a dream ticket for Meyer’s books. And having Hardwicke on board certainly garnered the attention of film lovers who were previously blissfully unaware of the vampire storm raging on the Young Fiction shelves. But more importantly, to the fans it looked like they were setting out to treat the source material with deep reverence and produce a quality film rather than a cheap money grabber.

But on the other hand though, if we look at the facts and figures of the production, Paramount weren’t exactly pushing the boat out here - a budget of $37 million might sound like a lot but it’s fairly small for a high profile fantasy adaptation and a couple of weeks of rehearsals then a 44 day shoot isn’t exactly a great deal of time for a blockbuster. Plus that long development time wasn’t more a script mired in the inertia of development hell than years of rewrites and polishing. One gets the distinct impression that although publicly they were treating Twilight as a quality production, behind the press releases Paramount were hedging their bets here - only investing what they felt sure they’d definitely get back in tickets for the die hard fans of the books. And considering this studio’s previous forays in genre franchise land, particularly their handling of the Friday 13th and Star Trek series, they’ve never been terribly keen to sink a lot of cash into such ventures, seemingly quite happy to churn them out like independent B movies and then happily rake in the box office returns.

So then if Hardwicke could deliver another cracking teenage epic, there would be cash and kudos all round. And even if the movie turned out to be awful and crumbled to dust under the burning sun of a poor opening weekend, there were enough devoted fans flocking to theatres so they’d still be quids in. But which did we actually get - quality production or steaming train wreck?

Well right off the bat (ho ho), I’d stake a claim that the real answer is somewhere in between. For, although the movie has some atrocious flaws in it, at the same time, in all fairness, it isn’t a truly terrible movie. No, really, it isn’t! And before you all run away screaming, mark this well, neither am I saying it’s a great film either.

Now obviously I am many years and a whole gender away from the core market this movie is pitched at, but equally I do have an abiding interest in vampirism and would like to think that I’m not yet so addled by grindhouse movies and pulp fiction that I can’t tolerate the lighter end or even the artier end of the genre. And indeed I was surprised to find that this first movie actually quite charmed me in a funny sort of way.

Why? Well, rather than Beverley Hills 90210 in Adams Family drag, Twilight turned out to be moody, broody and a lot closer to mumblecore indie movies that the usual parade of shiny, plastic teenage clothes horses. Permanently overcast and drenched in blue, Hardwicke strives to invoke the atmosphere of a small town as seen through the eyes of a teenager; that feeling of being geographically far away from where all the exciting things in life are happening, being surrounded by adults who are just “hanging on in quite desperation”, and to further quote the Pink Floyd, feeling like you’re just

Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Similarly, unlike the usual teen fare, in Twilight the young cast aren’t hermetically sealed in an adolescent bubble where the local high school is the centre of the universe and offers unlimited social opportunities unfettered by teachers, lessons or any thing else one normally associates school with.

Now it’s not that Twilight peers as closely into the average high school as closely as say Thirteen but it was refreshing to see a more down to earth portrayal of school days than the dubious visions presented by Glee or High School Musical, and it was good to get a sense of the wider locale, with the sleepy, constantly overcast and rain washed town of Forks becoming a character in itself.

I really appreciated this movie’s tonal qualities; the atmosphere, the low key story telling and in general the down-to-earth approach. As I often remark, context is everything and Hardwicke has carefully constructed the background and ambience of the film to give its story an appropriate setting that lends weight to the plot’s themes. The moody visuals, the well grounded milieu and the cinematography’s focus on the natural world, moves Twilight closer to the literate romances of the Brontes and away from Mills and Boon, and I began to understand why this little universe has won the hearts of so many.

Of course, of all the famous monsters, vampires have always had a massive appeal for the young. They look good, dress well, have super powers, get to stay up all night, and never grow up. Really, the only downside is that nasty blood drinking business, and hence the big question for many a child coveting the vampiric license to stay up past bedtime is do you really have to be evil and feast upon the human populace?

Now of course we have seen ‘good’ vampires before – Angel from the Buffyverse, Nick Knight the undead detective and of course the great Count Duckula – however the Cullen clan in Twilight are the perhaps the cosiest nest of vamps yet. Indeed their patriarch and the most obviously vampire looking of the family, Dr Carlisle, is an upstanding pillar of the community and probably more at risk of being mistaken for a Liberace fan by local homophobes than for being a creature of the night.

However as well as being a common fantasy brought to life, the Cullens also represent something else. If the appeal of vampirism to children lies largely in their innate requirement to live at night, inhabiting that adult world closed off by bed time regulations, as we grow older and the hormones start to fizz, the popular image of the vampire not only strengthens as a symbol of rule breaking, but also becomes sexually charged – the vampire is the magical lover who will seek you out, sidestepping all that angst of asking people out and dates, and given their supernatural powers and appearing at the bedroom window modus operandi, are the ultimate boyfriend/girlfriend our parents can’t stop you seeing.

And it was this rich vein of emotions and parental conflicts that I was expecting Twilight to be primarily exploring/exploiting (delete according to personal cynicism). However surprisingly, that’s not how the story goes – rather than going all Montague and Capulet on us, both Bella’s father and the Cullens are rather supportive of the relationship between our two leads, refreshingly there’s none of the stereotypical parental ogre antics here, not a ‘fee-fi-fo-fum, I’ll ground your bones for a month my son’ in sight. Similarly Edward himself isn’t cast as the dangerous boy from the wrong side of town or a dark seducer, but as the more grounded aloof and seemingly unobtainable lad at school.

And it is in this context, that the Cullens become more than just the usual set of symbols, as rather than being forces of rebellion and embodying the upturning of the natural order, they actually appear to be representing the exact opposite. And indeed it is partly these qualities that draw Bella to them – as a child of divorced parents and lacking a permanent, definitive home, the Cullens represent everything Bella is missing – a family that is united, living together under one roof, and supporting each other. It’s a fascinating inversion of the usual tropes – rather than the vampires representing socially destructive forces, agents of the Other, instead they are upholding the culturally canonised ideals of the family unit. Essentially what we have here is convention and conformity as subversion.

So then to recap what do we have so far? Atmosphere in spades, a story well rooted in a reality that reflects most teenagers’ lives far better than other fare aimed at adolescent market and some very interesting spins on the usual semiotics of the vampire. However surely as dawn follows the dim watches of the night, there’s a host of ‘buts’ looming over the horizon...

So then in a rough order of most minor to the most egregious, let’s examine where this movie fell down. Firstly, I didn’t think the selection of music from popular beat combos that pepper the soundtrack were quite up to scratch. Now I’m not having a pop at any of the artists involved, it’s more that I didn’t feel they always dovetailed as smoothly with the action on screen as perhaps they should. Musically speaking they were in the right area for this movie, but I did wonder if there were better tunes out there. Of course, as there are various rights and legalities to tangle, not to mention getting permission from the artists involved, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there are more than a few second or third choices of song included here. Equally though this is a matter of personal taste, so moving swiftly on...

Some of the effects work was distinctly on the dodgy side, in the main the sequences which required Edward to demonstrate his vampire super speed and hyper agility. Now these aren’t massive complex scenes to render; in theory just making a character move at superhuman speed shouldn’t be too taxing for the average effects wizard and certainly shouldn’t be a problem for a major studio production with the resources and budget Twilight had. And therefore I’m inclined to think that this is a case of a director either being unaccustomed to integrating special effects or simply not having a strong enough vision of how they should look... Which is rather unfortunate as Edward bouncing about the place like a cross between Zebedee and Mr Claypole rather undercuts the dramatic power of his big reveal scene in the tree lined bower.

And while on the visual effects front, we have to mention that mostly maligned aspect of the Twilight mythos – the fact that vampires sparkle in the sunlight. Now judging from various chuntering about the franchise I’ve encountered over the last few years, it would appear that this twist to vampire lore is widely regarded as heretical, if not blasphemous!

However strictly speaking, while this is addition to the mythology is new, it isn’t exactly at odds with the lore of the vampire. Although many vampire legends are clear that vampires operate at night, the whole business of sunlight destroying them is a much more recent addition. And when we venture into classic vampire fiction, we discover that undead titans like Dracula and Lord Ruthven do not crumble to dust when exposed to daylight. In fact, the whole business of the dawn bring fiery dissolution to the undead was invented in Murnau’s Nosferatu, which has Graf Orlock melting away at the break of day. And furthermore it wasn’t until after Hammer came on the scene in 1958 with their version of Dracula that the spectacular solar powered destructions of vampires became commonplace.



Therefore as a student of vampirology, I do not have such problems with the unusual effects of the sun upon the undead in Twilight. Actually given the mythology we are shown in the movie, with Bella discovering the local Indian legends of the Cold Ones, the concept that in the full light of day a vampire is revealed as being composed of glittering frozen flesh is an appealing one. Unfortunately however in the film what we actually get on screen looks more like some cheap psychedelia left over from an acid trip rather than the reveal of a crystalline creature. In fairness, this always would be a tough job for the effects boys to pull off, but I can’t help feeling that, as is often the case in instances of annoying obvious and unconvincing SFX, that better framing and composition from the director would have helped.

And speaking of Bella’s researches, here another area where Twilight flounders, the pacing of its story. Now while I will happily applaud a movie that takes its time unwinding its narrative, I couldn’t help but feel that the flow of the movie often hit the rocks. And a prime example is when Bella works out what Edward’s true nature is, and Hardwicke takes the lazy route and throws us a montage. Yes, an effective way of conveying the rather uncinematic activity of web trawling and consulting tomes, but in the context of what had come before, this scene felt sudden, rushed and somewhat at odds with the slow burning pace of the movie up to that point.

It would also seem that at some points Hardwicke was feeling out of her depth. While she can carefully paint everyday scenes, such as Bella hanging out with her new friends in the school canteen or mooning over the mysterious Edward, she seems less at ease with both the more stereotypical romance scenes and the moments where the movie becomes more fantastic.

However in fairness, allegedly there were tensions between the producers and Hardwicke, and some have claimed these behind the camera troubles as why she didn’t return to helm the sequels. And certainly the way the movie which seems to stroll along nicely then abruptly stagger for while before meandering along again would seem to indicate trouble in the editing suite at least, if not outright interference in the direction. Also considering the somewhat brief period of principal photography, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that a major source of tension between Hardwicke and Paramount was the lack of time to get the all the scenes shot she wanted. Certainly studio/director conflict would account for the points where the pace falters and why the afore mentioned bower scenes doesn’t play as well as they should but the baseball game and the subsequent meeting with the visiting vampires do capture the required magic.

However none of the above are necessarily deal breakers in my book, as generally the movie is hitting more of its marks than its missing. Generally the cast put in some rather nice turns, Bella’s father is realistic and sympathetic, her school friends are nicely naturalistic, and the Cullens quite enchanting. Robert Pattinson does well as Edward, making the most of a role that mainly requires him to stand and look good and at some points struggling manfully with rather clunky lines (yes, that bower scene again). But he does have presence, pulling off a good balance between showing he is a decent, honourable young man but also a creature of the night.

However where the film really suffers is Kirsten Stewart’s performance, frankly she is just so sulky you want to slap her. Now admittedly many people have a problem with Bella as a character, specifically in that she is largely passive throughout the movie, with everything happening around her or to her. Now this wasn’t particularly a problem for me for several reasons – firstly life is often like that, particularly for teenagers when you feel old enough to make your own decisions but no one will let you. Secondly, as an element in the narrative, Bella is meant to be the character that the audience may inhabit; she is the shoes we may step into to experience the story. Thirdly and finally, this movie is adapted from a novel that takes the form of her diary, and judging by the way Hollywood tends to bring books to the screen, we are missing out all the internal dialogue that give her substance in the books, leaving a hollow shell on screen.

However all that said, Stewart is just draggingly downbeat, and while watching the movie I was moved to tweet – “you can see why Edward is attracted to Bella; Stewart is playing her like a dead eyed, soul sucking leech”. Yes, I know sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but honestly she just frowns her way throughout the whole film. Now in the early parts of the story, this is acceptable – most teens would be somewhat moody to be marooned to a small town but later on when the romance begins to glow, Stewart just doesn’t bring out the delight and enchantment of young love.

Perversely though, I would stress that this isn’t a bad performance – she is very naturalistic and plays the typical teenager far more realistically than the usual portrayals. The trouble is while this acting would shine in a low budget mumblecore film, it’s simply the wrong performance for this movie. To draw a musical comparison, she’s giving a jazzy all minor chords recital when the rest of the film is playing a gothic pop number - it’s not bad acting here, more a performance that grates not only with the rest of the film but a lot of the audience too.

Now again this could be a directorial issue, with Harwicke either not getting the right tone from Stewart or that the studio shaping the finished movie into something that does not match the style of its heroine’s performance. However it should be mentioned that Stewart has garnered something of reputation for being somewhat sullen in public appearances... But regardless of where the fault lies, for me the portrayal of Bella was the major flaw in the fabric of the film.

But despite fostering the urge to hurl James Brown CDs at her until she cheers up, Stewart’s Bella doesn’t sink the entire film fortunately – after all there are many moments when such downbeat acting is perfectly delivering what the plot requires. However, her performance combined with the other niggles listed above, do drag the movie down.

Now in fairness Twilight never sinks into real cinematic awfulness, there’s far too much craft involved for that, but rather it achieves mediocrity. Now this film has been unfairly denounced as utterly awful and largely that is just down the prejudices we discussed in Part I, however having seen the film now I do suspect some of the ire stems not from it being a badly made film, but rather it’s failure to be great. And there’s a distinct if subtle difference there.

For Twilight should have been a lot better. Even though I am outside the demographic the books and the film are aimed at, I did think the basic story is interesting, and as I’ve discussed above, it takes what could descend into a mass of lowest common denominator clich├ęs and spins them out in an interesting direction. And ironically enough, I felt where the film fumbled wasn’t in that it was making vampires romantic but that frankly it just wasn’t passionate enough in delivering said romance.

I think Twilight work just about well enough, but I can’t shake the feeling that there was a better, stronger, brilliant film struggling to get out. But while I can’t claim to have been exactly enthralled by the movie, it did charm me enough to stick on the New Moon right away... which really wasn’t the effect I was expecting.
Now a common opinion is that the Twilight movies actually improve with each instalment. And we’ll find out whether this claim holds water, in TWIHARD Part 3!

Don’t forget, you can hear The Black Dog podcast marathon that inspired these articles here




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